Friday 9 October 2015

The bureaucracy of identity

If you haven't read Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman, you're really wasting your time reading The Blob.  The series of extended anecdotes about how Richard Feynman solved problems is a far richer education in critical thinking than the 700,000 words I've written around that core. One of the Joking stories is about Feynman being invited to give a post-Nobel talk at a nearby city college.  He is happy to do this but imposes one of his impish conditions: he won't sign his name more than 13 times on the way to getting a $50 honorarium. The required signatures mount up until he's put his name on 12 bits of paper but has two more to sign, so Feynman is happy to call it quits - he doesn't need the money. It's been far more fun to rag The Man. The story continues:

The next day he called me up. "They can't not give you the money! They've already earmarked the money and they've got it set aside, so they have to give it to you!"
"OK, if they have to give me the money, let them give me the money."
"But you have to sign the form."
"I won't sign the form!"
They were stuck. There was no miscellaneous pot which was for money that this man deserves but won't sign for. Finally, it got straightened out. It took a long time, and it was very complicated -- but I used the thirteenth signature to cash my check. 

A year ago, I wrote a status report of where the country was with the setting up of Irish Water as a national utility which would fix the leaks, stop Cryptosporidium boiled-water notices. and rationalise the water infrastructure to reduce bloatocracy and inefficiency. It was to prevent embarrassing nonsense like Dublin running out of water in the middle of the 2013 International Web Summit. Two years later we read "Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said he is "very disappointed" to hear the international Web Summit is moving to Lisbon in Portugal from next year."  That's 25,000 lost hotel rooms and associated restaurant meals, pints of stout and late-night curried chips: lost from Ireland because the infrastructure for international conferences is better in . . . Lisbon!  Far from being disappointed Enda Kenny could have been ashamed / sorry / embarrassed because the Irish Water debacle has occurred entirely on his watch.

Some of the issues.  In creating a national utility, there was an opportunity to reduce overlap.  All 26 counties used to employ a water microbiologist to detect fecal coliforms and Cryptosporidium, but Irish Water might only need a handful of these chaps for the whole country. But in the negotiations with then existing employees, everyone was guaranteed a job for the next 7 years, so Irish Water's payroll is about 2x larger than an efficient utility would require. Then everyone was given productivity bonuses for doing their job when many of the potential customers were struggling on unemployment benefit and trying to hold on to a debt-laden family home. The bureaucratic overload goes to the very top as Irish Water, with its CEO, CFO, CPO and Board of Directors is answerable to Ervia [formerly Bord Gáis Éireann] which has its own CEO, CFO, CPO and Board of Directors. The upshot is that many consumers dug in their heels and refused to play water-polo: refused to register as a water user, prevented outside contractors from installing water meters, elected a leftie wing-nut to parliament on a Free the Water ticket. You can bet that none of these revolutionaries stopped flushing the toilet 25 times a day or washing their car with potable water every Saturday. Coupled with this was a political tangle as the government tried to maintain a fiction that Irish Water was a wholly independent utility rather than a wing of central government. They needed to convince Eurostat, an EU statistical rectitude quango, that less than 50% of the budget for Irish Water was coming from the Central Exchequer. They failed.  But to encourage poor folks to register with Irish Water so that they could receive a bill, the government offered a €100 cash-back deal to everyone who signed up. At the deadline for registering and claiming the €100, only 54% of households had done so.

Everyone: including people, like us, who had sorted out their own water infrastructure by sinking a bore-hole, installing a pump, sinking a septic tank and digging out a drain-field. Our bore-hole was 113ft deep and cost us £4/foot in 1996, the pump was another £600+ and the downstream works cost at least as much again.  I'd be happy enough to sign up with Irish Water and pay an annual charge if a) they paid off my debt and b) undertook to maintain everything.  Anyway, we signed up and registered with Irish Water and 24 hours before last night's deadline put in my claim for €100. The government is paying me 100 notes for not being a customer of Irish Water!

Now here's the Feynman thing, in order to claim my bonus Water Conservation Grant from the Department of Social Protection on, I was required to submit the following information:
  • IWRN 0123456789 Irish Water Registration Number [10 digits]
  • WPRN 9876543 Water Point Reference Number [7 digits]
  • TIN 01234567  Transaction identification number [8 digits]
  • IBAN IE00BANK93001112345678 Bank Account Number [22 digits]
  • BIC  BANKIE2D Bank identifier [8 digits]
  • PPS# 7261885W Social Security Number [8 digits]
  • Email [18 digits]
  • Cell 0872229000 [10 digits]
Effectively my Irish Water Uncustomer ID number is quite long: 10,234,567,899,876,543,012,345,671,300,842,793,001,112,345,678,842,713,204,866,951,312,345,678,412,345.6780872229000.  That's 1091 or a bit more because some of the entries are alphabetic [N=26] rather than digits [N=10]. That should be enough to uniquely identify every customer of Irish Water. There are after all only 1082 protons in the observable universe.

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